Fright Night is one of the last movies of the summer, and it's like a masterclass in how to make a perfect warm-weather flick. It's a nice little character-based adventure with real scares and action. The people behind some of the other lackluster summer movies should be forced to watch this, Clockwork Orange-style, so they can see how it's done.
Minor spoilers ahead, although we won't give away any of the film's big surprises. They're too good to reveal.
We've actually been lucky enough to have a number of well-made, solid films this summer, including a few decent superhero movies and a few films that revitalized some moribund franchises like Planet of the Apes. It's not like last summer, when almost every movie felt like an exercise in wheel-spinning except Inception. This year, there's been some basic attention to detail on the part of at least some writers, directors and actors, so that we've seen more compelling world-building and character-building.
And even in the midst of a better-than-average summer, Fright Night stands out as a well-done film. It's not a huge epic, it's just a sturdy little movie that holds together really well, with really good pacing and enough surprises to keep you guessing. And it's a sweet, weirdly optimistic film that seems to believe that people are basically good. Unless they're vampires, in which case you should light them on fire, expose them to sunlight and ram a wooden stake into their hearts as hard as you can.
Fright Night follows the bare-bones outlines of the 1985 original, but puts some new meat onto them. Anton Yelchin is Charlie, a preternaturally good-looking kid who used to be a spotty mega-nerd. But now his complexion has cleared up and he's joined the popular kids and started dating a hot chick, Amy (Imogen Poots). (It's sorta funny that I watched this right after rewatching Sky High, in which a kid makes a similar leap from sidekick to superhero at a stratified superhuman high school.) But Charlie's old nerd friends are pissed that he's ditched them, especially "Evil" Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). And then after one of their other friends vanishes, Evil Ed decides that a vampire is at fault, and he thinks he knows who the vampire is: Charlie's new next-door-neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell).
The movie moves at a pretty break-neck pace, with Evil Ed announcing his suspicions that Jerry is a vampire pretty early on. And then Evil Ed is proven correct pretty soon after that, and from there on it's an all-out sprint, with Jerry becoming progressively more and more evil and destructive and basically declaring all-out war on Charlie and his friends and family. Situations do not overstay their welcome — we explore them fully and then the plot moves forward.
I think that's a major reason why I liked this movie so much — good pacing, that doesn't sacrifice character development or plausibility, is all too rare. (And by "good pacing," I mean that you don't bog down into Michael Bay-style attempts at comedy interludes, but also that you don't resort to too many montages or having plot twists literally come out of nowhere.)
And as villains go, Jerry is a pretty good one — he's a nice mixture of slimy and mean and violent, with a lot of swagger. And the scary bits are pretty well done, with some decent, non-gratuitous use of CG effects. The movie plays with a lot of the standard horror-movie tension-raising techniques, but then subverts them pretty handily to deliver bigger and better shocks. Plus you get bonus points for adopting the British show Ultraviolet's conceit that vampires don't show up on video. (Apologies if this came from somewhere else — Ultraviolet is where I remember seeing it.)
As you might expect from this sort of movie, it's a coming-of-age story and a hero's journey. But at no point are those attributes rammed down your throat or overplayed. And we never have any boring-ass scenes of Charlie resisting the call to heroism or whining that he just wants a normal life. Charlie's motivation is pretty clear: He was a dick for not believing his friend Evil Ed when he first told Charlie about the vampire, and now Evil Ed is missing, presumed toast. Charlie needs to make up for his understandable but still kinda dickish mistake, and he also needs to protect his loved ones from a predatory motherfucker living next door.
Probably a lot of us are just going to see this film for David Tennant, who plays Charlie's reluctant mentor, a stage magician named Peter Vincent. And yes, that is an excellent reason to see the film. As the Obi-Wan to Charlie's Luke, Tennant is at the height of his powers. He's a profane lout in eyeliner who trades insults with his girlfriend/assistant and kind of owns the fact that he's a fake magic user who's surrounded by real, dreadful magic. But as great as Tennant's performance is, the interplay between him and Yelchin is even better.
And the "comedy" part of this horror-comedy is pretty sturdy as well, with some nifty gags and some awesome nerd humor.
As I mentioned before, this is a weirdly optimistic movie, considering that a fair amount of dark, scary stuff happens, and the incident that launches the movie is a crucial betrayal of friendship on Charlie's part. In the end, people are a lot more understanding and, yes, heroic than we sometimes expect. Your family doesn't necessarily suck, your hot girlfriend isn't as superficial as you fear she is, etc. etc.
And in this particular version, coming of age and becoming a hero doesn't mean that you become Special or the most important person in the world or anything — it means that you step up and take the challenge to Fight Evil. With a flamethrower and a crossbow and some ancient gnarly stakes. And a scowling David Tennant by his side. It works quite well.